One of an important and rare group of bitingly satirical oil paintings that James Ensor painted in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth, Les joueurs (The Gamblers) is a comparatively large example dating from 1902. Depicting an extraordinary varied group of caricatured middle-aged men engrossed in betting on a card game, the painting portrays the insidious art of gambling and its effects on those who pursue it through a grotesque and mask-like parade of grimacing faces.
Ensor, who spent his summers in Ostend was well aquainted with both the practice and the habits of gambling as well as with the characteristics of the demi-monde that surrounded Ostend's casinos. Belgium's ambivalent and comparatively relaxed attitude towards gambling in the late nineteenth century was a point of topical discussion during the period, especially when, in 1892, a prominent Ostend politician named Montagnie became destitute as the result of a gambling scandal. Les joueurs is based on a drawing that Ensor made soon after this scandal in 1893.
He subsequently made a popular print of the same subject in 1895. It is therefore plausible, as Ensor scholar Patrick Florizoone has suggested, that the subject of this work with its depiction of a gambler losing under the stern eyes of a figure of authority may well relate to this scandal as well as to the corrosive effects of the practice as a whole.